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Fidel's presence still keenly felt in Cuba

Fidel's presence still keenly felt in Cuba
By Michael Voss
BBC News, Havana

Cuba without Fidel Castro at the helm: many wondered whether communism
in the Caribbean could survive without him.

There was dancing in the streets of Miami, as anti-Castro exiles wrongly
assumed the end was nigh.

A year later, and outwardly little in Cuba appears to have changed after
emergency surgery forced the 80-year-old Fidel to hand over power for
the first time since his revolution in 1959.

It was a smooth transition, but so far stability has not led to any
improvement to people's daily lives.

Low wages, food shortages and poor public transport are the complaints
that dominate conversations here much more than questions of political
freedom.

Practical and pragmatic

The world's longest serving defence minister, General Raul Castro has
been his brother's right-hand-man since they were both guerrilla
fighters in the Sierra Maestra, struggling to overthrow the US-backed
dictator, Fulgencio Batista.

In those days, Raul was considered a hardline enforcer who was a
dedicated communist long before Fidel.

He doesn't have Fidel's charisma, but Raul is considered the more
practical and pragmatic of the two.

This has raised expectations that some economic reforms may be on the way.

In an hour-long keynote televised address before a 100,000 strong crowd
last week, Raul acknowledged there were problems with the economy and
changes were needed.

"To have more, we have to begin producing more… to reach these goals,
the needed structural and conceptual changes will have to be introduced."

He also said that the country may have to turn once again to foreign
investment.

Elder statesman

Many Cubans and Western observers believe this to be a signal that
Chinese-style reforms are finally on the way; an opening up of the
economy while maintaining political control.

As caretaker president, Raul has also offered to sit down at the
negotiating table with the United States. That's been rejected and under
US law, there can be no lifting of the embargo against Cuba as long as
either brother is in power.

Most Western observers believe Raul is running day-to-day government.
What is less clear is who is setting the political agenda.

For the moment, Fidel has taken on the role of elder statesman as he
continues to recuperate from a series of stomach operations.

Recent pictures show that he has put on weight and appears to be getting
stronger.

In recent months, Fidel has increasingly made his presence felt through
regular newspaper editorials, called Reflections of the Commander in Chief.

Many are attacks on his ideological nemesis, US President George W Bush.
Only a few have dealt with internal politics. All are read in their
entirety on nightly television news and the first collection has been
published in book form.

In one of his editorials last month, he suggested that what the economy
really needed was a renewed sense of revolutionary dedication.

"The standard of living can be improved by raising knowledge,
self-esteem and dignity of the people. It will enough to reduce waste
and the economy will grow."

Fidel Castro's hand may not be on the tiller but his presence remains
immense.

Many believe that there can be no major changes in Cuba without his
approval, much less against his wishes.
Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/americas/6925085.stm

Published: 2007/07/31 21:22:54 GMT

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